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How to Travel Better is a new monthly column with Condé Nast Traveler’s sustainability editor Juliet Kinsman. In this series, Juliet introduces us to the sustainability heroes she meets, signposts the experiences that are enhancing our world, and shares the little and big ways we can all travel better.
My heart skipped several beats as our plane navigated the cloud-haloed, sharp peaks of the Himalayas before easing itself onto the landing strip in Paro. Few pilots are even qualified to negotiate the strip, which is only the size of a couple football fields and is surrounded by low-rise, green-roofed, whitewash-and-timber buildings. The only passengers on the tarmac, we padded— wide-eyed, slack-jawed—into the tiny arrivals lounge where we were greeted by bucolic scenes hand-painted on the wattle-and-daub walls. An independent bookshop and art displays stood where one would expect to see Duty Free items.
The passport control officer I was assigned opened my stamp-filled passport and smiled, saying: “Oh wow, you travel a lot". This contrasted sharply with my transit through Bangkok, where I was scolded: “Passport full. Get new one.” At 7,000 feet above sea level, Bhutan's only international airport had already been a breath of fresh air. We breezed through to be welcomed by Pencho, our guide, and Kencho, our driver. As we settled into the car, I asked how many visitors the country might have right at that moment, feeling very lucky to see so few around me. “Maybe 200 or 300,” Pencho replied. “It’s high season.”
In terms of world history, but a blink of an eye ago Bhutan was still largely hidden from the rest of the world. It has only been a nation in its own right since 1907, but the hydro-powered, carbon-neutral country always indexes high among the most sustainable in the world. This is the reason why I arrived with expectations as high as the Himalayas: I wanted to better understand their low-traffic, high-spend tourism strategy—the sustainable development fee they charge travelers is a well-known example of this—that is so celebrated, alongside their Gross National Happiness metric. I especially wanted to see how this reconciles with ambitious developments like the Mindfulness City in Gelephu in the south, which aims to be a modern Buddhist lifestyle destination and economic mega hub.
I’m an independent traveler, but relinquishing all planning to our MyBhutan hosts was incredibly pleasant. They were to arrange an itinerary that would have us experience Bhutan in a way that felt honest and genuine, and during which we’d leave money in the hands of those who care about local communities and nature. In Paro, for instance, our first night was spent at Bhutanese-owned Zhiwa Ling Heritage, which proudly displays the design and craftsmanship of regional artisans and prioritizes hiring locals.
Bhutan's hotel industry has always been sensitively regulated by the authorities. Aman and COMO Hotels and Resorts were among the first five-star international hotel brands to entice discerning visitors in the early noughties, and their luxury circuits that followed; connecting Paro, Thiumpu, Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang set the bar. More recently, sustainability and wellness leader Six Senses has created its own daisy chain of sleek, eco-conscious retreats. And with Africa’s andBeyond importing their safari approach to Bhutan, wildlife, too, is in the spotlight. But more recently, there has also been an emphasis on homegrown hospitality, and home stays that offer a taste of everyday Bhutanese living are on the rise. One such homestay, the Mendrelgang Heritage Home in Punakha, is an ancestral home that presents an authentic setting, inviting its guests to step into a family’s real-life history.
Our MyBhutan-planned itinerary took us to a different stay every night, and from Paro in the west to Gangtey about 100 miles west. The most challenging planned activity was a three-hour hike up a steep, wooded cliff to Tiger’s Nest, an iconic 17th-century monastery. I couldn’t help noticing that, despite being a major tourist attraction, the majestic temple (as well as the dzongs we visited later) never felt busy. Another day we crossed a prayer-flag-festooned suspension bridge to Happiness Farm in Punakha, for a fascinating first-hand tutorial on the centuries-old technique of natural dyeing and weaving with Aum Karma, its nangi-aum (lady of the house). There’s a remarkable national pride in both Bhutan's handmade textiles and traditional clothing: Most men dress in a gho, the elegant knee-high, wide-sleeved robes, while women dress in a hand-woven, ankle-length kira.
Along the drive from Paro through Thimpu, we paused at Dochula Pass, the 10,000-foot-high stop to take in staggering panoramas. We learned from our guide that the geography of this yak-farming terrain has been greatly affected by rising temperatures and less-predictable seasons. Another day, while tree planting with the NGO Green Bhutan, we received a lesson on the importance of biodiversity at the Royal Botanical Park, Lampeiri. And one evening, after dark, we rafted past Punakha Dzong—the palace of great happiness. As it glowed by night on the banks of the Pho Chhu (Male) and Mo Chhu (Female) rivers in the Punakha Valley, we turned to Bhutan’s more meditative side, underscoring that true luxury is a feeling.
Humans are the only creatures that explore for the sake of exploring. We often trot out clichéd catchphrases such as “travel as a force for good,” but what does that really mean? How can we travel the world in a way that genuinely benefits us, and those hosting us? Bhutan, a country shut for two years due to the pandemic, is seeing one in seven young adults leaving in search of higher-paid jobs overseas. Gelephu Mindfulness City is being envisioned as a way to address that—to combine business, culture, and spirituality in a way that allows for progressive growth and for a little of the outside world to seep in. To get this done without compromising on what makes Bhutan so precious will be the challenge. After all, as a visitor, the cultural authenticity free from outside influences is what makes time in the Land of the Thunder Dragon so enriching.
Most of all, Bhutan was a reminder that our greatest privileges on this visit involved not lavish facilities or expensive amenities but pristine, untouched nature and a sense of wonder at a simpler, rural living not yet wiped out by modern progress. Did we fall in love with this magical mountain kingdom? Na ma sa me, which translates from Dzongkha as ‘infinitely.’ Or, quite literally, “between the earth and the sky.”
Sustainable luxury stays
Tucked into the main mansion that’s fashioned from local stone and delicately painted timber, the two-bedroomed Royal Raven Suite was extra special thanks to its intricately decorated en-suite shrine room honouring the goddesses of longevity, happiness and wealth.
Sangwa: Luxury Tented Camp
A secret camp created just for you, where you can try your hand at the national sports of archery and darts, watch folk performances by a crackling log fire, taste Bhutanese whiskeys, and feast on a spice-rich, camp-made banquet. —Book with mybhutan.com
Six Senses has five beautiful lodges in Bhutan, but waking up in Gangtey to the widescreen view of Phobjikha Valley while listening to the distinct call of the black-necked cranes—on their winter sojourn away from Tibet—will stay with me forever.
An independently owned five-star wellness hotel where the traditional Bhutanese medicine practitioner prescribes wellness treatments from herbal compressions to Tibetan Ku Nye massages. There’s also a seductive indoor pool to tempt.
This intimate all-inclusive riverside retreat promises up-close wildlife-rich explorations and guided treks and hikes, alongside every five-star perk. Standalone tented suites as well as a two-bedroom villa sit in perfect harmony with the valley, while rafting and kayaking await beyond.
A dream gourmet escape for couples and honeymooners, where experienced chefs alchemize seasonal ingredients and local specialities such as yak meat and cheese with great imagination. Book a traditional hay bath soak and enjoy the charming valley views that come with.
Juliet Kinsman traveled with mybhutan.com and bhutan.travel.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler